Editor’s (admin’s) Note. I posted this to Facebook with this note: “A new post to my spirituality blog. On an unusually thought-provoking op ed piece by David Brooks, one of the New York Times’ house conservatives, in which he suggests a new way (actually a very old way) of surviving in a hostile political environment.“
A fascinating — and, I think, rather hopeful — offhand comment by David Brooks on the PBS NewsHour Friday evening. In the context of a new Interior Department investigation into and reckoning with the tragic legacy of 19th- and 20th-century Native American boarding schools, he suggested “the book of Jeremiah embraces cultural diversity.”
I’m not too familiar with the prophet Jeremiah, so I’ll have to take Brooks’ word on that, but he gives me a new way of thinking about our tendency to sort ourselves out by social class, educational level and political persuasion into mutually antagonistic, less-and-less hidden “tribes” — a new way, more accurately, of transcending tribalism.
Spoiler alert: Riffing on something Rabbi Jonathan Lord Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, said in a 2013 lecture, Brooks says the Jewish experience over the centuries suggests that what he and Rabbi Sacks call “creative minorities” can work together in a diverse, secular society. “I used to think that America had to find a new unifying national narrative,” as Brooks puts it. “Now I wonder if not having a single national narrative will become our national narrative.”
Which, in turn, gives me a new way of thinking about Swedish immigrants of the 1850s; “creolization” (an academic word for cultural blending); and how I can reframe and expand the paper I presented last fall. Can religious pluralism — an interplay of “creative minorities?” — be part of a reimagined American civil religion? Brooks, as it happens, has been writing about this lately. And he’s not alone.
Brooks brought up the prophet Jeremiah in reaction to NewsHour host Judy Woodward’s interview with US Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on the department’s plans to investigate cultural genocide and brutality toward youngsters at the indigenous boarding schools over the 100-plus years they were in operation.
When the usual Friday night “Brooks and Capehart” commentary began a few minutes later in the program, Woodruff kicked it off by asking about the schools. The ensuing discussion begins at 43:00, with Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post saying, “We have to investigate, and we have to know our history. We have to know our history in order to atone for our history. … How the nation should atone for this, that should be part of the discussion. I don’t know exactly how we should do that, but we should talk about it.”
I’m copying Brooks’ take on it in full; it was somewhat discursive and sounds unrehearsed (like I sound when I’m thinking aloud), but I think it gives an insight into his thinking — and the deeply unsettling nature of the problem. It begins at 45:12:
The Canadians are ahead of us on this. … It’s been a national trauma as they face that reality, but a trauma that has to be faced. There are so many levels to what happened. One is just the raw racism. They weren’t taking Ukrainian kids and ripping them from their parents, they were taking Native American kids. The second is the ideology. After Darwinism there were all these pseudo-scientific crappy beliefs in race, and [the idea that] some civilizations were better than other civilizations and therefore the idea that you’re doing somebody a favor by taking them away from their heritage. That was the pseudo-scientific belief system that was pervasive, not only on the fringes but throughout western society. Then the final thing which is to be appreciated, which they did not have then but we can have now, is that cultural diversity is a plus and not a minus. It’s not a recent thing in world history. The book of Jeremiah embraces cultural diversity, but it was not commonly believed. And one of the things we have done, I think we have come to cherish different heritages and the way they interact and the way we can integrate but not assimilate.
With that, Brooks and Capehart segued right away to the ongoing negotiations for President Biden’s infrastructure bill. After all, it’s a TV news show. But the part about Jeremiah embracing cultural diversity intrigued me.
I hadn’t heard anyone talk about Jeremiah like that before, and I wondered if it would help me sort through the issues of white Christian nationalism and religious pluralism I’m wrestling with as I try to find lessons for today in my research on American civil religion, immigration and the old Swedish Lutheran synod. So after supper, I did some keyword searches and found Brooks’ 2019 op ed piece with the intriguing headline “Your Daily Dose of Optimism.”
Brooks starts the piece with a reference to his Jewish family heritage on the Lower East Side of Manhattan a hundred years ago, but he quickly segues to the present:
My grandfather, Bernard Levy, grew up there, off Bayard Street, a few years later. He went to a public high school and a public college and rose to become a lawyer. He spent his evenings writing letters to the editor that he hoped would be printed in The New York Times. He didn’t live to see me get a job here, but I am living out his dream. Our family life, from the Lower East Side upward, is a social mobility miracle.
When you grow up with this background, you have a deep sense of the goodness and purpose of America. America is the land of milk and honey. Lincoln could go from a log cabin to the White House. A Jewish boy from the Bronx named Ralph Lifshitz could grow up to become Ralph Lauren and redefine American preppy. You could be born on the fringes and assimilate into this new thing called an American.
I used to think we could revive that story for the 21st century, but we probably can’t. Too many people feel left out of it. Plus, there is no longer a single American mainstream to serve as the structural spine of the nation. Mainline Protestantism is no longer the dominant religion and cultural force. The WASP establishment no longer rules the roost. There is no white majority in our kindergartens, and soon there will be no white majority in our society.
But he suggests the Jewish heritage might suggest a way out of America’s current dilemma of polarization and separation into mutually antagonistic “silos” of like-minded partisans:
The reality and challenge is that America has become radically pluralistic. We used to be unipolar — one dominant majority culture and a lot of minority groups that defined themselves against it. Now we’re multipolar. We’re all minorities now.
That could blow us to smithereens. But who knows? We could learn to be minorities together, to be what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls creative minorities. In a brilliant 2013 lecture, Sacks noted that when Solomon’s temple was destroyed and the Jews were cast into exile, the prophet Jeremiah had a surprising message: Go to new lands. Build houses. Plant gardens. Seek the peace and prosperity of the cities in which you settle.
Jeremiah was saying you don’t need to assimilate into the new place. Nor do you need to withdraw into a culturally pure enclave. Instead, don’t be afraid to be a distinct, orthodox version of yourself within a larger society. Build a rich moral community. Just don’t try to universalize your faith or even become a dominant minority. Interact with the world around you, confident in your own particularity, but realize that every time you seek to dominate others, you will wind up dominated.
This stance — aggressive interaction without an attempt to be hegemonic — made the Jews creative in three ways, Sacks argues.
First, the encounter with other cultures led to great flowerings of Jewish thought. Jews wrestled with the best ideas they encountered from outside. Second, Jews were often bridges between different civilizations. Through trade, they linked China and the West during the Middle Ages. Third, Jews emerged from their secure base and made great contributions to the wider world: Spinoza, Freud, Einstein, etc.
In a world of radical pluralism, we are all Jews. We have no choice but to build a mass multicultural democracy, a society that has no dominant center but is a collection of creative minorities.
With another rapid segue — no segue at all, in fact, as he goes from one paragraph to the next — Brooks ends on a note that appeals immensely to this half-Norskie, half “Heinz 57” reader of mixed English-German ancestry who spends part of his day reading and/or writing (more like journaling and scribbling outlines lately) about 19th-century Swedish immigrants:
Nearly 200 years ago, Tocqueville wrote that democracy was creating a new sort of man. Pluralism today is creating a new sort of person, especially among the young. They don’t just relish diversity; they embody it. Many have mixed roots — say, half-French/half-Dominican. Many are border stalkers; they live between cultures, switch back and forth, and work hard to build a multiplicity of influences into a single coherent life. They’re Whitmanesque, containing multitudes, holding opposite ideas in their minds at the same time.
Radical pluralism also necessitates retelling the nation’s history. We’ve always been a universal nation, a crossroads nation, a nation whose very identity is defined by the fact that it is a hub for a dense network of minorities and subgroups, and the distinct way of life they fashion to interact and flourish together.
I used to think that America had to find a new unifying national narrative. Now I wonder if not having a single national narrative will become our national narrative.
Deal me in! Like I said, it appeals to this Norwegian-English-German-Yankee mutt who’s writing a paper that argues the Swedes created a creolized Swedish-American culture and prominently cites a quote by post-colonialist novelist Salman Rushdie, who once said his writing “rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world.”
Tangent/note to self: Cf. linguist John F. Szwed. “Received views of purity and impurity become less clear-cut, as Szwed asks with Creole-like ambiguity, if something new is purer than the old, or if it is the essence of corruption,” Robert Baron and Ana C. Cara, Introduction, Creolization as Cultural Creativity (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011), 13.
A couple more notes (for future reference):
1. Rabbi Sacks’ lecture is available on his website, with a transcript and links to First Things, the sponsoring organization, and a review in the New York Post. He begins:
Almost exactly twenty-six centuries ago, a man not otherwise known for his positive psychology sat down to write a letter to his coreligionists in a foreign land. The man was Jeremiah. The people to whom he wrote were the Jews who had been taken captive to Babylon after their defeat at its hands, a defeat that included the destruction of Solomon’s temple, the central symbol of their nation and the sign that God was in their midst.
We know exactly what the feeling of those exiles was. A psalm has recorded it in the most powerful way: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion . . How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:1, 4)
This was, of course, what Jeremiah had predicted. But there is no air of triumphalism in his letter, no “I told you so.” What he wrote was massively counterintuitive. Yet it would be no exaggeration to say that it changed the course of Jewish history, perhaps even, in an indirect way, that of Western civilisation as a whole. This is what he wrote:
Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. (Jer. 29:5–7)
What Jeremiah was saying was that it is possible to survive in exile with your identity intact, your appetite for life undiminished, while contributing to the wider society and praying to God on its behalf. Jeremiah was introducing into history a highly consequential idea: the idea of a creative minority.
There’s more. A lot more. It gets into Toynbee and Spengler and the decline of the West, and I don’t know if I buy it all, but it’s immensely thought-provoking.
2. A snarky piece by Jeet Heer quotes Brooks as saying he identifies as Jewish; admires Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and St. Augustine; and sees them all as being perfectly compatible. “As with his neo-conservative politics, Brooks’s religious musings spring from a nostalgia for the consensus America of the 1950s,” says Heer. “This was the era of civil religion, when the idea of faith as a pillar of patriotism was widely affirmed. As Eisenhower declared in 1952, ‘Our form of government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious belief, and I don’t care what it is’.” And this nicely turned bit of snark:
For Brooks no less than Eisenhower, the actual theology or spiritual content of religion is immaterial. What matters is that religion upholds the social order. Sacred books, in this understanding, have the same edifying role as great philosophical and literary works (this parallels Brooks advocacy for “the Western canon”).
Whatever else you can say about his analysis, I think we can safely say Heer and Brooks belong to different creative minorities.
David Brooks, “Your Daily Dose of Optimism! The America that lies beyond our current despair,” New York Times, June 20, 2019 https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/20/opinion/america-radical-pluralism.html.
Jeet Heer, “David Brooks needs a name for his new religion,” New Republic, June 13, 2018 https://newrepublic.com/article/149066/david-brooks-needs-name-new-religion.
Public Broadcasting System, PBS NewsHour, July 16, 2021 https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/july-16-2021-pbs-newshour-full-episode.
Jonathan Sacks, “On Creative Minorities,” Erasmus Lecture, First Things, New York, Oct. 21, 2013 https://rabbisacks.org/erasmus-lecture-creative-minorities/.
[Published July 18]